With 11 sets of eyes on her, Sarah Adams drew out a long “Naaaaaaaah,” but she wasn’t telling her students no.
The students mimicked her, and again when she puckered her lips and said “Phh, Phh.”
“What's that word?” she asked.
“Nap!” 11 boys responded.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy for Boys kindergarten class had just finished reading a book about how animals act in the winter, and now they delved deeper into the words in the story.
Behind her, a lesson chart showed the book, told students the big idea of the story, an essential question to ask, and targeted strategies, letter sounds to focus on, and concepts to master, such as blending of words.
Ms. Adams prompted students to sound out the letters in the words, then blend those sounds together. “Na Ah Ph. Nap. Cah Ah Nh. Can.”
Typical kindergarten stuff. But then Ms. Adams posted two more items on the board, each with full sentences. And the students read them.
“I’ve been teaching kindergarten for five years,” Ms. Adams said, “and I’ve never had my kids read before.”
Kindergartners in the area can expect quite the similar experience in coming years, in both the increased expectations and the way subjects are taught.
Districts across northwest Ohio, the rest of the state, and most of the country are undertaking a major shift in how they teach students. Nearly every state is implementing the Common Core State Standards, a uniform system for English and math. Gone is the patchwork of standards and tests that varied between states.
That doesn’t mean that every school will teach exactly the same thing. Districts still will select their own curriculums and train their own teachers. But there will be a largely uniform set of expectations for what students should know when.
The Common Core was developed in a process led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and has been adopted by 45 states, including Ohio and Michigan. Adoption was voluntary, although the federal government gave a strong incentive by making adoption of the standards a requirement for awards in the Race to the Top grant program, which gave states billions in federal funds for school reforms.
The idea behind the Common Core was to make all high school graduates prepared for a career or college. Many graduates now need remedial coursework when they get to college. In reading standards, for instance, there’s a focus on close reading, analyzing themes, and identifying point of view. Each grade level builds upon the other on basic concepts. But the focus isn’t on individual concepts, but on core ideas.
Where in the past, teachers had to hit on a variety of concepts at each grade level so students could master them for standardized tests, Common Core is meant to focus on the bigger ideas.
“Hopefully, the intent of these standards and the intent of the new assessments is we work toward a bigger idea,” said Kay Wait, an instructional planner for Toledo Public Schools.
Many districts in the area have begun aligning curriculum and implementing the new standards in at least kindergarten through second grade, if not more. Much of the local work on Common Core happens behind the scenes, with teacher teams and curriculum directors rebuilding how and what teachers teach at every grade level in English language arts and math.
“We are really rebuilding our curriculum from the ground up,” said Brian Davis, Washington Local’s curriculum director.
That means more rigorous coursework. Many concepts are being pushed into lower grades or introduced earlier in academic years. Students often weren’t introduced to every letter in the alphabet in Ms. Adams’ class until the spring; now, they get every letter by the second week in school.
But the new standards also means more depth. The board behind Ms. Adams is a good example.
Under the old curriculum, students may have been led in rhyming books or predecodable books, which are mostly picture-based. Now, students aren’t just led through the story. The story is used to focus on a specific letter sound, on blending techniques, on how to draw conclusions from stories, on how to pick out verbs, and ultimately how to figure out an author’s point that may not be expressly stated.
That’s in many ways how the common core is supposed to work. It starts with an end concept that students have to learn and then builds the framework underneath with skills students must master to get to that final concept. Over the years, the concepts become more complex, but they are meant to continually build on each other.
The same thing works with math. Instead of just learning how to compute a set of algorithms, Mr. Davis said, students must be able to demonstrate how they arrived at solutions.
The Common Core is also bringing new tests.
Students in Ohio will see all new standardized tests in 2015 through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two state consortiums formed to develop new assessments. The new tests will be entirely computer-based; no more No. 2 pencils and bubble sheets. They aren’t out yet but are meant to be closely aligned to the Common Core.
Mr. Davis said the sample questions he saw build on the concepts of Common Core. Instead of multiple-choice questions in math, some questions may be broken into two parts, with choices for a math question and then another set of choices to show as evidence of how a student reached his or her answer.
Criticisms of the Common Core have been numerous, some from educational angles, others politically based. Although the program is not from the federal government, some critics say Common Core is usurping classroom decisions that traditionally have been made at a local level. Others question if new standards and practices can really increase student achievement. And others say Common Core stifles creativity in teachers.
Proponents argue that Common Core is only a framework and that when it is properly instituted, teachers can be as creative as they were before, maybe more so.
“Common Core does not mean common instruction,” said James Herrholtz, the Ohio Department of Education’s associate superintendent of the division of learning. “Common Core does not mean lack of creativity.”
Teachers across Ohio and the country essentially have to be retrained in how they approach their craft, after years of focus on state-mandated criteria. That means a lot of professional development, either from their districts or from outside groups. The University of Toledo has been holding seminars for area teachers on the new standards in recent weeks.
And although concerns have emerged about a further homogenization of teaching begun in large part during the last two decades’ focus on accountability and standardized tests, the Common Core in many ways is a rejection of some of the in-classroom results of that accountability focus.
Although teachers may have tried not to teach to tests, Ms. Wait said, they encountered so many individual concepts that they needed to teach to cover all subjects on standardized tests that teaching started to drift toward essentially a checklist system. Teachers had to make sure they hit each subject, often very briefly, that would be covered by the tests.
When educators talk about Common Core, they frequently say something to the effect of “deeper, not wider” in reference to learning concepts. There are fewer standards, with more time to focus on those core concepts.
“This is in some ways a great opportunity for teachers to get back to what teaching used to be about,” Ms. Wait said.
That means some items get left out or are emphasized less. For example, students in younger grades will rarely be introduced to money in class, unless it’s being used as a counting manipulative, said Adam Fineske, executive director of curriculum and instruction for Sylvania schools.
An emphasis under Common Core is on reading of informational texts. That includes increased use of subject-based text, such as scientific journals, historical speeches, or even reports by the Federal Reserve. By high school, 70 percent of reading should be nonfiction.
Mr. Fineske said some teachers, especially high school teachers in specialized courses, are worried about the emphasis placed on nonfiction and whether that means students will no longer read Shakespeare and William Faulkner.
“I don’t see that happening at all,” he said. “But there will definitely be a shift to informational texts.”
Not everything about Common Core implementation nor the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessments is set in stone. For instance, Ohio high school students now must pass the Ohio Graduation Tests in order to graduate; it’s unclear how new end-of-course assessments will affect graduations.
Mr. Herrholtz said one possibility is the tests will be used as final exams in college are, with the tests counting as a certain percentage of a course’s grade. Failure on the test could mean failure of the course.
But change is coming. Maybe the most tangible will be in physical books: Educators predict at least a partial phaseout of bulky textbooks. Teachers instead probably will use smaller reading supplementals and a bevy of online resources.
“Why would I go and buy a lot of textbooks, when I have all these resources online?” Mr. Herrholtz said.
And that should make students — or at least their backs and shoulders — happy.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6086.